The Republican debate in Miami Thursday night surprised almost everyone with its unexpectedly calm tone and focus on policy, to the extent that Donald Trump himself remarked on stage that he "cannot believe how civil it's been up here." Undoubtedly, all four candidates are running short on energy after weeks on the campaign trail. Trump clearly chose to sit on his lead in the race and refrain from stirring up more controversy, John Kasich remained loyal to his strategy of selling himself as the most positive candidate in the race, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who have tussled with Trump in the past, no longer exhibit confidence that attacks on the front-runner will benefit their own campaigns.
Late in the evening, conservative writer and radio host Hugh Hewitt asked the candidates about the prospect of a contested convention in which no single candidate held a majority of delegates. Kasich and Rubio, neither of whom could plausibly receive a majority themselves at this stage in the race, both dodged the question. Trump replied that he believed that "whoever gets the most delegates should win" even if the total fell short of an overall majority, which he referred to as an "artificial" and "random" number. Cruz did not explicitly agree with Trump's position, but argued that "some in Washington" are "unhappy with how the people are voting and they want to parachute in their favored Washington candidate to be the nominee. I think that would be an absolute disaster and we need to respect the will of the voters."
Trump and Cruz both understand that they are disliked by Republican Party leaders and that recent talk of a contested convention is coming from corners of the party that wish to block their ascent. Trump, anticipating that he will lead in the overall delegate count at the end of the primaries, is signaling that he will demand the nomination anyway even if he fails to accrue an overall majority. Cruz would presumably do the same if he manages to surpass Trump in delegates, but he may also be keeping the option open of arguing that any convention bent on denying a majority- or plurality-winning Trump the nomination should rightfully turn to him, the likely second-place finisher, instead. It is clear that Cruz would prefer a Trump nomination to an insider-blessed compromise choice, for reasons I have discussed before.
Any contested-convention scenario would thus surely occur over the intense opposition of the party's two leading presidential candidates (who between them will likely have attracted at least 70 percent of the total popular vote and an even greater share of the delegates), further validating the central premises of both men's candidacies that the "Republican establishment" is out of touch with, and even hostile to, the party grassroots. One can only imagine the protests that would ensue, egged on by talk radio hosts and other populist voices as well as Trump and Cruz themselves, against such a maneuver. Republican members of Congress and other elected officials would likely be threatened with future primary challenges for even suggesting publicly that the top choices of the voters be denied the nomination, much less carrying it out—and such threats are by no means idle in today's Republican Party.
The nomination of Trump in particular might well turn out be such a disastrous event that it would be worth whatever price Republican politicians would need to pay to prevent it from happening. But both Trump and Cruz provided notable reminders last night that the cost of choosing a nominee who is not one of them is likely to be high indeed. While it's comforting for many Republicans—and fun for many analysts—to envision a surprise twist ending to the nomination process in Cleveland this July, such an outcome remains somewhat improbable from today's vantage point. How likely is it that a party leadership that has become scared to death of its own popular base would reject the preferences of that base in the most dramatic possible manner?